Monday, October 6, 2008


The joy of LAN parties in Days of Yore.

After making several trips to the car all the requisite parts are inside the house and, confidently declaring how much fun we are about to enjoy, we would assemble the network.
I'm sure that whoever came up with the idea of a computer network meant well and, his shining prostelysing carried each assurance of technological advancement to greater heights in the swirling mind of his research supervisor, but there is a world of difference between a neatly drawn diagram of a network all thrumming with elegant promise and the reality.
Don't get me wrong, setting up a network is a three step process - it's just that step two includes 387 incredibly hellishly frustrating ministeps.

Step 1 is to plug everything in. And that is relatively easy to achieve once various players have been cursed for not having colour coded plugs and sockets. The funiture will have to be rearranged because you find you have forty three 2metre-long Cat5 cables and only one longer cable which is so long it starts in a large coil in the middle of the floor and gradually unravels to tie each chair to a person and the chairs to other furniture, such that it is actually a good way of finding furniture you never knew you had.
'A coffee table?! Since when have I had a coffee table?' you muse aloud.
'We could have used that, you dickhead!' comes the inevitable protest.
'Where is this coffee table?'
'Right here, tied to my chair.'
Fred can't see because of the ottoman blocking the view, and anyway the hatstand tied to his monitor prevents him from moving out of the position of a hunchback. He stands up and pulls on various loops of cable, one of which starts strangling James whose flailing topples a lampshade and pulls out a cable that we don't discover for forty minutes.
Adrian falls over the coffee table, strangling James further.
'Nice table!' he exclaims.

Now that the room looks like some high-tech shipwreck and everybody has got on everyone else's nerves you are ready to begin Step2.
Step 2 is started by the player whose computer is acting as the server. He creates a network, names it and waits for each computer to join it. This is the process by which each computer works out that it can talk to every other computer. Since all the computers are crowded around the one table where each person has a space the size of an iced vovo in which to move their mouse, this should be easy.
It is not.
You've played that game 'Marco Polo' in someone's pool as a kid?
It is an uncanny analog.
The server start calls out 'Marco!' and instantly nothing happens.

You are now ready to run through ministeps 2.1 through to 2.387.
I won't go into all the details but this is where you discover that machines *do* have personalities. Some of the computers refuse to say 'Polo' out of truculence like a fat woman eating chocolate with her eyes closed claiming calories only count if you see them; some blame the others for not being in the same pool as themselves; some of them carry on like a deranged elderly relative looking for the spectacles they are wearing; and one is French.
'Ou ay le network?'
'Kes cou se?'
'Terribly sorry, old bean! Had a bit of bother with the old radgema-thingy. How nice to see you. Where is everyone else? Oh, I mean: Polo!'

By 2.133 you will be merrily deleting each other's modem drivers in a misguided search for incompatibilities.
2.201 will have you discover James' disconnected cable.
And 2.344 is to burn Bill Gates in effigy.

Step 3 is actually being able to play the game, but this isn't what I wanted to talk about at all.
I wanted to talk about graphic cards.
Quite by chance I had second-row seats to the introduction of 3D accelerators into the market. I was working at a computer parts importer from the start of 1998 and saw each stage of development come through in much the same way as the series of silhouettes from a chimp-like ape through various 'pithecuses to Homo and ultimately sapiens sapiens. 'Well that was worth all the effort: now I have a suit!'

It is a shock to think that *anything* I was involved in was ten years ago. After all, I am a disturbingly handsome and charming man, and I don't need reminding that sooner than I think I will be a roguish silver-fox with the certain twinkle in my eye that appeals to young ladies with father issues - but there you have it.
Back in 1998 we were selling 2D graphics cards with S3 chipsets and 2MB of RAM. We also had ViRGE and Rage 3D cards and they had, gasp, 8MB of RAM. That's not to say that gaming didn't exist, it did, but though you could easily spend $1500 on a truly astounding graphic card from a manufacturer hidden in an obscure valley in Taiwan and staffed by techno-warrior-monks infused with strange wisdom, there wasn't anything towards the budget end.

Then along came 3dfx Voodoo2.

Released back in 1996 Voodoo1 was the first 3D accelator add-on card and was the humble 'small step'. The Voodoo2 was the giant leap. It plugged into a PCI slot and lent its monstrous 16MB of RAM to your 4MB (or even 8MB) graphics card to turn your Ford Laser into a Ford Falcon!!
Yes, the introduction of the AGP slot was a revelation of a promising future for gaming. Its very name of Accelerated Graphics Port said it all, but Voodoo2... well, Voodoo2 made you change your pants because it was the chip that really made 3D gaming possible and allowed us to WASTE OUR LIVES!!

But the marvels of those days weren't over yet. FatboySlim exploded on the scene and changed Music As We Know It. And then that a bunch of techno-warrior-monks called Nvidia released the RIVA TNT2 graphics card.
Sweet Mother of the All Holy 32MB of RAM!
But, His Eternal Benevolence, Lord Nvidia wasn't done yet, for he so loved the world.He gave us the Geforce AGP card with its Graphics Processing Unit.

...Oh, I well up to think back on those days, their names familiar in my mouth as household words - Harry the Gamer, Geforce and Nvidia, Voodoo and Radeon - be in my mug of cold tea freshly remembered!

But even this history is not what I wanted to talk about.
Names! The eye-popping names!
They knew how to name cards back then: Voodoo 2, Mystique, Banshee, TNT, Rage.
Big powerful dangerous names that had gamers licking their lips in anticipation of the virtual horror they would be able to unleash!

But perhaps the biggest horror unleashed on the world was the marketing that went with it.
Now computers were all about gaming, and gaming was all about power and the next tiny tweak to get an extra 5% performance over someone else's card.
So, it did get a bit out of control.

(The marketing team are presenting their latest graphics card pitch to the CEO. A,B,C are marketing dudes.)

CEO: (reading) The Total Bastard 3. So this card is baaad?
B: No. It's Evil.
CEO: (dubiously) How evil?
A: (with relish) This card is so Evil it will fuck you in the ass!

(CEO looks suspiciously at his marketing team)

CEO: Come again? This card will fuck me...
B: See, we write that here on the box.
CEO: We're not going to represent it in graphic form?
B: Well, no.
C: It would take away from the graphic of the warrior decapitating the alien.
A: I suppose we could have the warrior decapitating _one_ alien, while fucking another alien up the ass.

(They mentally invisage it and glance quickly between the box and each other. They all shake their heads.)
B: Too busy!
C: Yeah, yeah. Too busy.
A: Yeah, you're right.

(CEO pinches bridge of nose. He hates the marketing department.)


Liam said...

Dear God my adolescence. Except I couldn't afford any of them, through spending money on booze.
"Then along came 3dfx Voodoo2."
Man, that line's like Dickens, if he was awesome.

anti ob said...

Kids these days and their rassafrassin "wireless" networks. Its all wrong! Can't be a network if it can't be used to strangle James...

pete said...

I recall the additional steps of:

a) installing legit, store-bought copies of the game we wanted to play on all the networked machines. Long, tedious process.

b) attempting to network said copies, no success. Very long, tedious process. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

c) de-installing ligit copies of game. Replacing with hacked copies OF SAME GAME. Short, easy process.

d) networking works right away, game playing starts (or, at least moves on the next technical obstacle)

Mike said...

Have you noticed that they've become very lazy with their naming recently? They tend to rely on higher numbers (I'm waiting for factorial notation, like the Radeon 78!) instead of cool names like the nVidia PipeSlammer with Buss Widening Technology (tm).

Seriously, they've gone off their game.

p.s. I love the term 'pithecuses.

p.p.s My 'word verification' to make this post was 'mlukijyn'. That's gotta get ya some points in Scrabble.

Fyodor said...

"mlukijyn" = a Fremen chimneysweep - clean as a whistle, sharp as a thistle, best in all

Do you guys remember when a totally bitchin' game like Elite needed only 64K* of RAM? Fucking lazy programmers.

* it could actually run on less, IIRC.

Mindy said...

I remember the searching for the cables which someone would then remember that they left at their place in another far away suburb, and not being allowed to move anything so that everyone could come back later and go through step 2 again. Very rarely did anyone ever actually get to play the f'kin game. Hard feelings? Who me?

harry said...

"Man, that line's like Dickens"
# With that woeful Australian games company SSG playing the part of Miss Havisham.
'We made one promising game and then everybody dumped as as fast as possible.'

"Kids these days and their rassafrassin "wireless" networks."
# Leisure can only be truly appreciated if you suffer. I reckon cabled networks were _our_ Great Depression, and the kids today just can't understand what it was like.

"Replacing with hacked copies OF SAME GAME."
# Too true. Ah, me. Cue well-worn rant of spending all that anti-hacking money on actually making decent games.

"very lazy with their naming recently?"
# Hence the nostalgic ramble.
ATI started it after they gave up after Radeon - and just added nuimbers to that. i think they are up to the GXM840thousand.

# Ah Elite! Cutting down hapless freighters as they wallowed through space! Shoot and scoop. The life lessons that other people are only worth what their ship is worth in scrap. I would have slaughtered thousands of blameless owner-operators in my time.

"searching for the cables"
# I do remember one logistic planning session where we realised we didn't have the right length cables and I mused aloud where we could get some at short notice - completely forgetting that I was working in a computer parts warehouse...

worldpeace and a speedboat said...

oh, poor SSG, were they really that bad? they were run by none other than William de la Montagne Hatchback*, an ancient SCA dude, who tried to crack onto Coz. Coz, alas alack, was too busy at the time slowly realising she had roasted her bum.

you forgot the best bit, Harry: sitting in the next room pretending to do a bit of sewing, listening to the laughs, japes, people falling over bits of PC strew about the floor, and blistering curses as Harry and/or Matt went down like a sack of poo.

those were the days indeed :-)

* almost the right name, but funnier.